According to the National Safety Council, every seven seconds a worker is injured on the job, and the most common injuries include sprains and strains, and soreness or pain. With our increased dependence on technology, too, these types of issues are not isolated to a single work sector and affect workers across a variety of workplace environments.
A continually growing body of research showing how massage therapy can effectively help people manage pain—coupled with health care providers’ earnest interest in prescribing fewer opioids and approaching pain from a more integrative perspective—means massage therapists have a key role to play in helping their clients recover.
Following are some brief reminders and recent research on how massage therapy can help clients who face workplace stress and injury.
Common Problems in the Workplace
Pain. From laborers whose work requires heavy lifting to office workers who find themselves in front of a computer all day, pain is a common problem. Carpal tunnel syndrome and low-back pain and stiffness are two of the most prevalent issues workers face, and overuse and overexertion are often the root causes. Poor posture can also lead to pain in the shoulder, neck and back.
How massage can help. Massage can help reduce some postural imbalances, as well as relieve inflammation and nerve entrapment. If you have clients with carpal tunnel syndrome or neck, shoulder or back pain, you do need to do a thorough assessment prior to starting the massage session so you know exactly what muscles to work.
For soft-tissue conditions, myofascial release can be a good technique to use. However, beware of working on one area for too long to avoid further irritation. Also, if you have a client with carpal tunnel or any condition that may have required surgery, be sure not to work on or too close to areas that might still be healing.
Eye strain. “Most of us spend our days—and evenings—engaged with one screen or another,” says Julie Goodwin, LMT and massage educator. “All of this screen time can place significant strain on the eyes themselves, as well as the muscles that move the eyes.” The numbers bear out Goodwin’s assessment. According to The Vision Council, approximately 80 percent of American adults report using digital devices for more than two hours a day, and nearly 67 percent are using two or more devices simultaneously. The toll that’s taking is reflected in the 59 percent who say they experience symptoms of eye strain.
Eye strain, too, can lead to other issues, according to Goodwin. “Eye strain absolutely contributes to headaches and to generalized fatigue,” she says.
How massage can help. One major benefit of massage therapy identified by Goodwin is a client experiencing actual relaxation of the muscles that move the eyelids, as well as those muscles that become mobile when the eyes are engaged, like the procerus, corrugator supercilii and levator labii superioris alaeque nasi, for example. “That awareness, with input from a knowledgeable massage therapist, can help clients identify and develop strategies for reducing eye strain and fatigue.”
Of course, the face does require some caution, Goodwin reminds massage therapists. “Local contraindications include direct touch over the eyeball and contacts left in the eyes,” she explains. “Absolute contraindications include stye or conjunctivitis.” Recent eye surgery or infection are also contraindications.
Stress. A 2018 survey by the Korn Ferry Institute showed that nearly two-thirds of professionals say their stress levels at work are higher than they were five years ago. The effects of stress can be wide-ranging and varied, including fatigue, poor motivation and, more seriously, burnout and other health problems.
How massage can help. When working with clients who are dealing with stress in their work environment, massage therapists should consider focusing on techniques that promote relaxation. For example, effleurage and gentle petrissage work well, as do rocking and light friction. Avoiding fast techniques or deep tissue is best.
Consider letting the client choose the music you use during the massage session, and start by instructing them to take a few deep breaths before you begin working.
What the Research Says About the Benefits of Massage
Stress. That massage helps with stress and anxiety is fairly well-established, though most of the research has been concentrated on client and consumer demographics where stress is almost inevitable, like pre- or post-surgery, for example, or when managing chronic disease. Then, in 2012, researchers at the Mayo Clinic investigated the feasibility and effect of chair massage for nurses during work hours. A total of 38 nurses were provided 15-minute massages weekly for 10 weeks, and stress and anxiety were measured at baseline, five weeks and 10 weeks. At the end of 10 weeks, researchers found that massage therapy helped reduce stress related symptoms.1
A 2019 study on chair massage for ambulatory cancer center nurses mirrors these results. Nurses were given access to a massage chair for 20-minute sessions in a secure room. During a six month period, nurses participated in 200 massage chair sessions, and self-reported perceived stress using a visual analog scale. A wrist-cuff device recorded blood pressure and heart rate. The study found significant reductions in perceived stress, blood pressure and heart rate.2
Muscle pain and stiffness. In a 2016 study on the preventive quality of massage therapy for musculoskeletal overload and pain, researchers studied 50 office workers. Participants were divided into an experimental group and a control group. The experimental group received twice weekly 15-minute massage for four weeks. Subjective assessment tools were used, including questionnaires to measure musculoskeletal discomfort and satisfaction with the massage program. An algometric evaluation of the pain threshold provided objective measures of relief. Significant results were recorded in the experimental group, with the biggest difference being the reduction in pain in the lower and upper spine and right arm. “The pain threshold assessed by the algometry increased at all points examined in the experimental group, with pain sensitivity decreasing the most in the trapezius and supraspinous muscles on the left side of the spine,” the researchers explain. “In the control group, the changes were not significant.”3
A 2017 study also looked at the effect of chair massage on musculoskeletal strain related to prolonged sitting posture, such as happens with people whose work involves long periods of sitting at a computer. Participants included 124 white-collar workers assigned to one of three study groups: chair massage, relaxing music or a control group. Pain perception was measured algometrically as a threshold for compression pain of neck muscles, and relaxation level was measured via heart rate variability. The pain threshold in all tested muscles and relaxation level both increased in the chair massage group, and there was a significant decrease in muscle tension for the chair massage and relaxing music groups. No significant changes occurred in the control group.4
A new 2020 study on sedentary behavior in workplace settings and an increase in stiffness of the back found that roller massage during break times can be effective in helping to prevent musculoskeletal issues, such as musculoskeletal discomfort and back pain.
The study included 59 office workers who followed their usual desk work regimen for 4.5 hours in a sitting posture. This sitting period was followed by either an eight-minute roller massage intervention or a controlled standing task. Stiffness values dropped following the roller massage and remained increased with the controlled standing task.5
Massage Therapy Journal
Labor Pains: Massage for Work-related Injuries
1. Engen DJ, Wahner-Roedler DL, Vincent A, Chon TY, Cha SS, Luedtke CA, Loehrer LL, Dion LJ, Rodgers NJ, Bauer BA. "Feasibility and effect of chair massage offered to nurses during work hours on stress-related symptoms: a pilot study." Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2012 Nov;18(4):212–5.
2. Hand M, Margolis J, Staffileno BA. "Massage chair sessions: favorable effects on ambulatory cancer center nurses’ perceived level of stress, blood pressure and heart rate." Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2019 Aug1;23(4):375–381.
3. Cabak A, Kotynia P, Banasinski M, Obminski Z, Tomaszewski W. "The concept of chair massage in the workplace as prevention of musculoskeletal overload and pain." Ortop Traumatol Rehabil. 2016 May 5;18(3):279–288.
4. Cabak A, Kotynia P, Banasinski M, Obminski Z, Tomaszewski W. "Preventive chair massage with algometry to maintain psychosomatic balance in white-collar workers." Adv Exp Med Biol. 2017;1022:77–84.
5. Kett AR, Sichting F. "Sedentary behavior at work increases muscle stiffness of the back: why roller massage has potential as an active break intervention." Appl Ergon. Jan;82:102947.